first published in the January 2021 Equiery
By Katherine O. Rizzo
Delivering fruit and vegetables using a horse-drawn cart may seem outdated to many, especially at a time when the entire world has practically been forced indoors and onto cell phones, tablets, computers and other electronic devices to do everything from ordering groceries to attending work or school. It would seem that in the virtual age we are living in, Arabbing might have met its end, however, the complete opposite has happened.
While the world anxiously awaits a COVID-19 vaccine and a return to “normal,” the tradition of Arabbing has become an even more important fixture of the Baltimore City landscape. Without the dedication of these men and women, many residents within the urban areas of Baltimore would not have been able to weather the storm that is the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the Front Lines
When Governor Hogan shut down Maryland businesses last March, except for those deemed essential, food distribution remained on the “essential” list. However, for many inner city residents, heading to the grocery store was not an option. Whether it was physically impossible or for fear of catching COVID, a large population stayed indoors, relying heavily on delivery of food.
The Arabbers of Baltimore immediately stepped forward, taking to the streets to deliver food and other necessary items, such as facemasks and information about COVID-19. However, instead of selling these items, they gave, and continue to give, them away for free, partnering with various groups such as Food Rescue Baltimore, Holly Poultry and the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s, Community Engagement Center.
Arabbers are uniquely suited to this role. M. Holden Warren, founder of Food Rescue Baltimore and Vice President of the Arabber Preservation Society, stated in an April 2020 Equiery article, “the Arabbers are a trusted institution. The people in these communities will listen to their advice and messages.” As the pandemic continues, Arabber Levar Muller of the Carlton Street Stable recently stated, “we have a duty. It’s up to us to provide to these people.”
Despite the tradition of Arabbing being a fairly social affair, normal operations have halted until it is safe to resume gatherings. “It’s a hard pill to swallow, but we will get through it,” Arabber Dorothy Johns of the Bruce Street Stables said. Johns has switched to using her truck for neighborhood deliveries during the pandemic. “I don’t want to encourage people to gather around the horses so the truck is a bit more subtle,” she said. “We are all afraid of [COVID] and we want to protect ourselves and others.”
Arabber James Chase of Fremont Stables stated, “There are still people in the city that cannot go to the store. We help these people. We provide a door to door service.” Chase is also the current President of the Arabber Preservation Society. Muller added, “We will survive this [pandemic] because we have to survive it. We are a service to the community and we need to preserve this history.”
The one positive that has come from this pandemic for Baltimore’s Arabbing community is the positive public exposure they are receiving. From articles and photos in local publications to national news coverage, it seems the country needs these stories of public service more than ever.
An American Story
Street vendors have been around since the beginning of America’s history. The tradition of Arabbing, selling fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts, stems back to the early 19th century and was once common all along the East Coast. The lyrical calls of the Arabbers have become an American oral tradition, taught by word of mouth through generations.
“The horse and wagon pretty much built this country,” Muller stated, explaining that without a horse and wagon, distribution of products across the U.S. could not have happened. The history of Arabbing has not just become important to America’s story, but to that of Baltimore City and the African American community. “You have to be an old soul to understand the culture [of Arabbing],” Johns added.
“Baltimore is lucky to have something as distinguishing as the Arabbers,” stated freelance journalist and filmmaker Charles Cohen. “Arabbing really is a part of Baltimore and a way to embrace rural culture inside Baltimore City.” Cohen has been filming John’s Bruce Street Stables and has even brought filmmaking students from John’s Hopkins to the stables for assignments. “I’m shooting because the story is there,” he said.
After the Civil War, many African Americans headed north and took with them some of the South’s rural traditions. African American men mostly dominated Arabbing in cities until the 1920s when women began to be more involved with the trade.
Mildred Alan was one of these women who headed to the streets of Baltimore and became the first African American woman to own a stable within the City. “Our family came up from the Carolinas in the 1920s and she was my grandfather’s mother,” Muller explained. “Arabbing is all about family.”
The Remaining Three
As industries and technologies progressed, the need for horses and wagons almost dried up completely and in Baltimore, there are only three stables remaining. The Carlton Street Stable is the oldest stable in the U.S., according to Muller. “It was started in the 1850s and was a coal, ice and wood distribution center,” Muller said.
Growing up in the trade, Muller stays in the business because, “we are a service to the people and a service to our community.” He went on to explain that the urban areas of Baltimore still need these resources. “That history must continue.”
In 2020, the Carlton Street Stable became the first Arabbing stable licensed through the Maryland Horse Industry Board. It currently houses seven to eight horses and four wagons. MHIB Executive Director Ross Peddicord recently visited each of the remaining stables stating, “not only do these three barns maintain the Arabbing tradition, but they also serve as neighborhood community centers in West Baltimore.”
Johns purchased Bruce Street Stables about eight years ago. Her family has been in the Arabbing business since her grandmother became one of the first African American women Arrabers in Baltimore. Johns says the Arabbing industry will continue because, “When all else fails, grab the horse and go!”
At Bruce Street, Johns typically houses five horses at any given time. “Right now we have three minis and two Arabbing [horses],” she said. “We have two more horses out at pasture in Virginia at my cousin’s place. I send them there to stretch their legs and get some rest.”
Chase also got involved in the business through his grandparents. In his case, he started tagging along with his grandfather when he was just six years old. “It’s a family thing,” he said, explaining that he has several uncles, cousins and other relatives all involved with Arabbing. “During my grandfather’s time, there were at least 15 stables in Baltimore. Way more than that,” he reminisced. “We are the last three.”
The Power of the Horse
Chase was drawn to Arabbing because of the horses, stating, “I went with [my grandfather] because of the horses. [Arabbing] is all about the horse.”
Johns has the same feelings, explaining that Arabbing is more about the horse than anything else. “A horse is a totally different animal. Arabbing is one with horses. There is something about them that just draws people in.”
Chase added, “In the city, people are used to seeing dogs and cats, but not horses. Every time I bring out a horse, people flock to us.” Chase also explained that he wishes more people would see how important the horse is to their way of life. “We love and cherish our horses just as much as we love our kids! Some of the animal rights people are misguided.”
Muller equates Arabbing in many ways to selling ice cream from a van stating, “Seeing the horse and wagon is like seeing the ice cream truck come around the corner. Kids just love to come up and pet the horse.” Muller added that the horse is what creates such a unique experience for the community.
“All of these stables are engaged in educational and community outreach through horses,” Peddicord said. “Horses allow people to dream, to think about someone other than themselves and show kindness and affection.”
Keeping the horse as the star of the show is one of the main reasons that Baltimore’s current Arabbers are looking to preserve the culture and industry. “Arabbing teaches kids there is a different way of doing things. A different way of life,” Chase said. He went on to add, “Kids see the easy way to make money on social media and all those reality TV shows. Arabbing teaches so much more about responsibility and compassion. A more positive way of life.”
Educating youth is now a primary focus of Johns, who is hoping to turn the Bruce Street Stable into an education center. “I’ve seen where Arabbing has gotten a lot of people off the street,” she said. “It teaches kids there is another way of life outside of a phone and computer.”
Johns feels learning about horses and their care is a “big deal” to many of Baltimore City’s urban youth. “I want to create a voucher system to reward positive behaviors that will lead to successful lives. If we can get to them before the streets do, they have a shot,” she said, adding, “It’s something really needed by the community.”
Chase agrees saying, “now more than ever we need to turn the whole country around. Its time for us to make that change.”
Preserving a Culture
The Arabber Preservation Society (APS) was founded in March of 1994, initially to help the Retreat Street Stable comply with changing city building codes. The non-profit organization is dedicated to the support and preservation of all of Baltimore’s Arabbers with their mission statement reading, “We recognize Arabbing as an African-American folk tradition; an economically viable system and a method of apprenticeship completely unique to Baltimore.”
Over the next few years, APS created various programs to highlight the positives of the Arabbing culture including a farrier apprenticeship program beginning in 1995 with a veterinary program being initiated the following year. APS purchased the historic carriage house on Lemmon Street in 1996 to create the Arabber Museum and in 1998, published a study entitled “Arabbing in the 21st Century.”
APS continues to represent the Arabbers in relation to various city regulations, which over the years have often sought to remove Arabbing from Baltimore. “Baltimore City has had its ups and downs in terms of support,” Cohen stated. “To me, Arabbing is like this beautiful little wild plant that you want to see flourish. It’s an endangered lifestyle.”
“The rules by the City are really restrictive,” Johns said, adding, “we can’t go out after dark, which in the winter really impacts us because that’s when our customers are coming home from work.” All in all, Johns understands why such rules are put in place and said, “we go out when we can.”
In 2010, APS successfully lobbied to have the Arabber Community of Baltimore added to Preservation Maryland’s Endangered Maryland program. Preservation Maryland is the State’s oldest and largest preservation organization dedicated to advocacy, outreach and education, and funding of Maryland’s historical landmarks and cultural activities.
“The Arabbers are a unique part of Maryland’s equine culture that ranks right up there with the Assateague Ponies and our other time-honored horse traditions,” Peddicord said. “The Arabbers, like the Chesapeake watermen, are one of those cultural icons that make Maryland ‘Maryland’.”
“I can’t really describe the feeling of Arabbing,” Johns concluded. “It’s like you are doing something great. You’re part of the community. One with the horse and one with the people. A part of the people. That’s why we do it.”